Charlton Heston gave us the archetype righteous Moses but the Moses of the Bible was fond of snakes and had a set of horns.
Why Does Moses Have Horns?
While it is often labled as a mistranslation by Saint Jerome in the vulgate despite his correct use of the term elsewhere, Moses horns took root in the art and culture before the twentieth century. Regardless of the validity of the translation, Moses as a character had actions that sit uneasy with Christianity when scrutinised.
Moses and The Serpent
Serpents feature strongly in the biblical account of Moses. While we are told that the serpent in the garden is subtle, cunning and crafty, Moses is given a staff that is able to change into a serpent by The Angel of the Lord. When he performs this act infront of Pharaoh and his magicians are able to repeat it, his snake consumes them thus depicting his snake as one more mighty than any other. Note, this is not a heavenly appearance of God but an actual serpent and by all accounts one of some power. The Angel of the Lord gives Moses a divine instrument in an unfortunate form.
The bronze serpent or “Nehushtan” is the second and perhaps more suspect of Moses serpent actions. He raises up a serpent on a pole and tells the children of Israel to turn to the serpent.
Moses Serpent Worship and Defiance of Gods Will?
While it’s notable that the LORD sends serpents along with a strange and symbolically strange cure, Moses actions the creation of Nehushtan and tells all to turn to the serpent upon a cross. The LORD has sent “fiery serpents” to punish the children of Israel and their only hope of earthly salvation is to turn to the serpent. Salvation through a serpent but under the threat of serpents. Again, we are shown serpent dominance by way of the idol that’s actually a divine instrument of cure.
The LORD sends the serpents to punish but by way of Moses intercession they do not suffer the punishment. Moses tells them that the LORD tells him to create the serpent thus negating himself from defying the LORD despite it being the will of the LORD that they were punished. Interesting.
King Hezekiah destroys the serpent of brass and it is he who first gives it the name “Nehushtan”. He establishes an iconoclastic reform that disallows any and all idols and denounces the brass serpent made by Moses. Hezekiah himself is held up as a righteous king who did the will of God.
The Hypocrisy of Moses
When Moses descends from the mountain with the tablets of the law he is met with a sight that causes him to smash the tablets. He arrives to find the children of Israel worshipping the Golden Calf. Again, it’s a metal idol and superior metal this time and a different creature. Moses is incensed by the idolatry and smashes the tablets upon it.
Moses himself is the one who gave an initial instruction to worship the metal idol of a creature, his being the serpent upon a cross. While he claims divine instructions were given for his own creation and the mistake is simply the Israelites following his example, he shows no mercy and uses the tablets of the law given to him by the LORD to smash the golden calf.
Moses, Destroyer of Law
The act of smashing the tablets into the Golden Calf is an action that can be viewed in a number of ways. Why does Moses bring the law of the LORD down only to smash what’s written. What can we read from this act? Is it simply the loss of temper for the children of Israel trying to replicate his act of creating the brass serpent? What does it say that he chooses the divine instructions given to him to break the idol? The example he gives doesn’t seem a particularly Godly act. He brings them rules and then smashes the tablets before them which symbolically destroys the law.
The broken tablets or Law are placed within the Ark of the Covenant along with Aarons staff which also could perform unnatural acts like Moses. The Ark is then worshipped by Aaron, Moses and the Children of Israel. The location of the Golden Ark containing the magical staff and the broken law is unknown to the day but speculated about a great deal by Jewish writers and in the Steven Spielberg movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Moses Refused Access to The Promised Land
Moses isn’t forgiven for a sin and cannot enter Israel, the promised land. Whether himself or his spies, a sin is committed and the Biblical account shows this as the striking of the rock by the mystical staff to bring forth water. Because they showed no faith in the LORD they are punished by never being allowed access into the promised land. Moses dies before they are to go forth into the land.
We are told in Genesis 14 that the King of Jerusalem is Melchizedek and that Christ is after the High Priestly Order of Melchizadek. The establisment of the Godly intent for Israel is established from the very beginning so Moses being unable to enter is worthy of note. Was the act so unforgivable? Could this be a covering for something else?
The Sanitisation of Moses Image
One of the very few positive acts Hollywood has done for Christianity is a positive depiction of Moses. This uncharacteristic act came through The Ten Commandments by Cecil B DeMile. No expense was spared in this endeavour either and it remains as a huge triumph in Hollywood Lore and the development of both the modern epic and the craft of movies at large.
In the movie, Moses is without Horns and Nehushtan isn’t depicted. He is righteous and merciful and pitched as Messiah over Mystic as some of his actions could suggest. All Biblical art and renditions of events from that point on took on the Heston Moses with no horns and the brass serpent he crafted to be worshipped for salvation all but forgotten.